Is Unlimited Subscription Limited?

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As a child it was my ambition to visit an “Eat as much as you can”-restaurant. It sounded like an offer that would suit my particular skill set extremely well. When I, finally, had the opportunity to go and fill up, it left me feeling bloated and strangely unsatisfied.

The expression “too much of a good thing” was coined by the Bard and makes its original appearance in As You Like It. These days it is used to indicate excess. (Look here for the NSFW original meaning.) When it comes to eating, it is both the possibility of excess that entices and disappoints these “as much as you can” experiences. At InstaScribe, we are wondering if it is the same with reading.


The unlimited pearls Oyster will disappear when it snaps shut during January 2016. (Oyster has been bought out by Google, so there is a good chance that the service will return once Google has reformatted it to their liking.) Scribd has also been adding limits to their unlimited offer. Romance and Erotica readers will get no more love from Scribd. Even Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited has come under some criticism.


Short History

Oyster, Scribd and Kindle Unlimited are a few of the read “as much as you can” services that have been popping up over the past few years. To make things really simple, for a flat rate, generally in the order of about $9, you could read as much as you could read.

There are some limits and limitations. The biggest perhaps that generally best sellers did not make it onto these services. Why, you might ask?. “It is about money!” would be Zen Scribe’s answer. Let’s leave that there for now.

Even so, these services offered between 500,000 and 1,000,000 books at that flat rate. At Instascribe we know of no person who could exhaust these vast offerings. Even at one book per hour 24 hours per day it would take 41 667 days or just more that 114 years to read a million books!

It does look great at first glance. I can read and read and read, leaving me just enough time to work, eat, and sleep. Surely not too much of a good thing!

The Reality

Yet, as we mentioned in the introduction, Oyster is ending their unlimited subscription option and Scribd is scaling down.

Justo Hidalgo, the CEO of a lesser known European subscription service, 24 Symbols, argues that consumers, or readers are more interested in access than ownership. This implies that these kinds of services should be a great hit.

Then why do we read about closing down and scaling down? We have to remember that these services are business and not Non-Profit organizations. They are not volunteer agencies. They are in it for the money. And you have to be at least a very big hypocrite if you want to criticize someone for making money in a legal and honorable way from which you can profit!

In the case of Scribd, the company was surprised by the voraciousness of Romance readers. You see, Scribd (and Oyster) offers a full pay out to the author if a certain percentage of the book is read.

This means that the author does not get paid once a book is downloaded, but when a certain percentage of the book is read. In the case of Scribd it is 10%.

Now, granted, most of the books offered here are very cheap to begin with, but even at $0.99 one has to read “only” eleven books per month before you are getting more than you paid for. And some books are perhaps as much as $3.99.

This is where the problem comes in. Readers are reading more than they are paying for. You can not blame them for that, because that is, in effect, what they are paying for! (You are paying to read more than you paid to read!)

This means that Scribd and Oyster lose money if you read too much. And, there is no business in the world that can be successful by spending more than they are earning. (Governments, however, seem to measure success in this way!)

KU is different

Kindle Unlimited employs a complicated formula to determine how much the author gets paid per book. The current author is paid (approximately) a whopping half cent per page!

Granted that a lot of the books they offer might not be considered for the Nobel Prize for Literature, or a “mere” Booker prize, this is not fair remuneration. Reward does not reflect effort, not even closely.


So we have two completely different problems facing the current unlimited subscription services. One, readers are reading more than expected, thus dipping into the companies profits. And, the KU model completely undervalues the authors, while, admittedly, keeping the readers happy.

IF Oyster and Scribd like services up their subscription rates, to balance things out, they will end up with less subscribers. I suspect that they haven’t up the percentage that should be read before paying out, because data shows that readers are finishing the books.

Amazon has already come under fire for strong arming authors and publishers alike, but they are still making money hand over fist.

We have two inadequate business models. In the first the retailer suffers because they have to give away the products they have paid for. And in the second the creator is being under-paid.

What is the solution? We do not know. But at Instascribe we would love to see a system that values the effort of the author, while benefiting the reader. Authors and readers are not enemies, but friends.

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